Tape and DVD camcorders are succumbing to the combined onslaught of solid state and flash memory capture. This is Panasonic's first hard disk model, and it's hoping that by wheeling out its 3CCD technology, it'll be able to compete with the offerings from Sony and JVC.
You'll be able to buy the SDR-H250 from May, and at the time of writing Panasonic hadn't decided on a price, but as a guide, rival products retails for between £500 and £600.
The petite, sexy H250 is clearly part of Panasonic's 'palmcorder' family. Its rounded silver plastic case is fronted by a Leica-branded 10x zoom lens, although anyone actually using the camcorder will spend most of their time gazing at the battery pack at the back. As usual with Panasonic, this chunky grey cube looks ugly and constantly gets in the way of your thumb.
Key controls fall under your right thumb and index finger. The zoom rocker on top is fast and silent, while the cluster of buttons and dials around the back has been well thought out. A mode dial circles a precise four-way, push-to-select joystick that makes short work of the H250's clear menus, the record button is nice and large, and even the delete key has been made tricky to reach to avoid accidental erasures.
There is, however, one notable omission from the back of the camera: a viewfinder. The 69mm (2.7-inch) LCD on the left is fine for daylight framing and playback, but anyone who's serious about movie-making will miss the ease of a viewfinder when shooting at night, or when power is running low.
Facing the fold-out display are a range of specialist buttons, including controls to boost screen brightness, activate the on-board LED and switch from fully automatic to manual modes.
As a hard disk camcorder, the H250 is smaller than MiniDV or DVD rivals, but it's not especially light, thanks to the shock-absorbing gel that surrounds its 30GB hard drive. There's also an SD slot for the bundled 512MB card. Usefully, the H250 can take the new high capacity (up to 4GB) SDHC cards.
While this is Panasonic's first hard drive camcorder, much of its technology has been lifted directly from tape and disc predecessors. The Leica Dicomar zoom is optically stabilised with Panasonic's ever-impressive OIS system, and feeds light to triple 800K CCDs. Having a separate CCD for each colour component (red, green and blue) should give brighter, cleaner hues, but can lack sharpness compared to a single, higher-resolution chip.
With such an up-to-date specification, it's bizarre that the H250's chips are 4:3 in shape: shoot in widescreen for modern TVs and you'll lose a whole chunk of resolution. Clips are recorded in MPEG-2 video (the same format as DVD), with a choice of qualities reflecting the bit rate. Top quality XP recordings are captured at 10Mbps, giving room for just six minutes of footage on the supplied 512MB card, or seven hours on the hard drive.
Although this is a mass-market camcorder, it's great to see manual features on board. You can adjust the iris and shutter speed, boost backlight and even focus manually, although the 123K-pixel screen isn't really sharp enough to see what you're doing. There are lots of scene modes, including a surprisingly competent Colour Night View mode for low light shooting. The LED light helps in the dark, too.
Of course, the H250 can also capture still pictures. In fact, you could fit over 400,000 basic quality snaps on the hard drive, although with that much space available you may as well stick to full-res (3-megapixel) photos.
The H250 will be more resistant to bumps and shocks than clunky DVD burners, although Panasonic has sensibly integrated a drop detect function and buffer memory to preserve your footage (if not the camcorder itself) in the event that the worst should happen.
As there's so much storage, you'd be crazy to film at anything other than maximum quality. But even then, straight lines show jagged edges and the finest detail is smeared -- this is a long way from high definition. Colours are strong and whites are crisp and clean, with the excellent Leica lens keeping distortion and colour fringing firmly in check. Digital gimmicks like the Soft Skin mode aren't really necessary -- faces look fresh, rosy and soft enough anyway.
Indoor and night shooting show large quantities of dot crawl and video noise, even in low light modes. The LED light helps somewhat, but its range is limited. Still photos are colourful but packed with noise and blurred edges -- about as good as the better 2-megapixel and 3-megapixel camera phones, but way behind dedicated cameras.
While the type of video recorded to hard drive and SD card is identical, that's not the case for audio. The hard drive captures stereo sound in Dolby Digital format, while the memory card makes do with MPEG-1 audio. The difference isn't really audible with the on-board mic but stick with the hard drive if you're using an external microphone.
In our tests, the supplied battery gave a continuous recording time for top-quality footage to the hard drive of 120 minutes. Charging time is around 2.5 hours.
Panasonic's first hard disk camcorder is a great first effort. It's taken all the best elements from its tape models and transferred them successfully, although there are a few minor things we wish hadn't made the transition.
Unfortunately for Panasonic, standard-definition shooters are starting to look endangered as we enter the hi-def age, with products like Sony's Handycam HDR-SR1 around. Although this smart, sexy model is a great introduction to digital movie-making, its shelf-life appears dangerously short.
Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Kate Macefield